Ariadna Jacob, the 37-year-old founder of Influences, a talent agency specializing in TikTok stars, has sued the New York Times over an article which she says falsely accused her of “illegal and unethical conduct,” costing her deals with major brands and millions in lost profits.

The complaint, filed Thursday in Manhattan federal court, centered on a piece last August by Times’ tech culture reporter Taylor Lorenz, which laid out a long list of gripes from young TikTokers who were either clients of Jacob’s or lived in “collab houses” she organized. (Groups of influencers in their late teens and early 20s sometimes congregate in such residences, where they can film content together.) 

Influencers quoted in the story, “Trying to Make It Big Online? Getting Signed Isn’t Everything,” accused Jacob of failing to pay them, violating their privacy, misleading them about brand deals, and locking them into unfair contracts. One influencer alleged in the piece that she leaked nude photos of him as a manipulation tactic. Jacob described the story as an elaborate “hit job,” concocted in part to benefit a major Hollywood talent agency, which represented Lorenz, and was also angling to scoop up Influences’ top clients.

The story promoted a “false narrative” and failed to reflect information Jacob had provided to rebut the allegations, she said. Referencing the nude photo claim, the talent agent said the assertion was “completely false” and the leak came “from a cloud account that had nothing to do with Jacob.”

Days after the story was published, brands including L’oreal and Universal Music Group dropped contracts with Influences, and numerous influencers abandoned the agency, she alleged. The result was devastating to her business and left her with “suicidal ideations,” she said. Jacob is seeking compensatory damages as well as at least $6.2 million in lost profits.

“Social media in general has never been bigger, more profitable, and more omnipresent and it continues to grow,” the talent agent said in the complaint. “Jacob was poised to be on the brink of making substantial profits until August 2020 when, as discussed below, her life’s work was derailed by defendants’ defamation.”

In an emailed statement to the Business of Business, Times spokesman Jordan Cohen said the paper plans to fight the lawsuit “vigorously.”

"Ms. Jacob's main complaint is that The New York Times gave voice to young people who felt they had been mistreated by her,” Cohen said. “It's troubling that she has turned to litigation to try to silence those who criticize her business practices.”

An immigrant from Mexico City, Jacob, who also goes by "Ari," had built her talent agency from scratch as TikTok exploded in popularity over the past few years. She hustled her way into representing, managing or consulting dozens of the platform’s biggest stars, including “five of the seven creators currently listed on the Forbes top earning TikTok creator’s list” she said.

In an interview with the Business of Business in April, Jacob said her business grew quickly, but problems emerged in the collab houses during the pandemic, as the influencer residents got restless. Brands stopped paying on time, and at least one unhappy influencer filed a California Labor Commission complaint against Jacob over the matter (Jacob claims the dispute was resolved in her favor). Some collab house residents became abusive and threatening, and some vandalized property, Jacob alleged. 

Widely considered to be a “Wild West” of sorts, the social media influencer market has grown by more than 700% since 2016, to an estimated $13.8 billion currently, according to InfluencerMarketingHub.com. Over the past year, a lot of that growth has come from ByteDance’s TikTok, which became the world’s most downloaded app for 2020.

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